A little over three and a half solar cycles ago user jbains asked us on how to live a cyberpunk life in the country. This was a subject that connected with me because I have basically lived that life as a child–outcast by my so-called community at a young age, I lost myself in virtual worlds, some of my own creation and others in the form of video games. Instead of downloading music tracks from Limewire or Napster, I would borrow compact discs and DVDs from my local library and rip them onto my old desktop tower. By the time I reached high school, social media was quickly becoming an essential communications platform that entranced my peers and myself. I have lived half my life digitally; were the internet to spontaneously shut down tomorrow, I’m almost certain I’d die of organ failure.
My time in meatspace, however, was miserable. I was the loner kid that preferred the glow of a screen over sunlight. Living in a small town isn’t all it’s cracked up to be–excluding tourist traps, the economies of rural communities have been collapsing steadily since Reagan was in office, which is why it seems like none of them have progressed politically since the AIDS crisis. So, by the time I slowly opened the floodgates of Media and the Internet in order to let the wave of humanity’s true face come crashing in, it was too late for me to socially adapt to society at large.
Anyways, I was going to write this about a year back, but then a pandemic happened, and I’ll admit I was at a loss for words for some time before then. After all, I’ve mentioned before that cyberpunk rarely takes place in the countryside, and for good reason–the wide open spaces of the great outdoors are much less oppressive than the steel canyons and cramped, pipe-and-cable lined corridors you may be used to in your cyberpunk media. In fact, some of you who live in urban regions may be itching to get someplace less condensed after the shit fuckery that has come with city living over the past chaotic year, and living the “simple life” by proxy through certain farming simulators just isn’t gonna cut it.
The good news is this: work-from-home employment is on the rise, and living out in the boonies without a long commute is a lot less pricey than many alternatives. The bad news is, well, everything else. You’re still living in a police/corporate surveillance state, plus trying to fold into a rural community can be next to impossible if you are perceived as the “wrong kind” of minority, and ostracization can and will lead to rednecks fucking with you for no reason. Pile on top of that economic decay via automation and corporate colonization, rampant alcoholism and drug abuse, human trafficking, and the coming slew of climate change events that are too late to stop and you’ll find yourself in a fresh new kind of hell.
But there’s still hope. Say you’re done fighting fascists on the front lines and you want to lie low up a goddamn mountain for a while. Just because you’re living in the middle of nowhere doesn’t mean you can’t still rage against the resource-hoarding capitalist scumbags in their glittering mega-pyramids. But the future won’t be found in doomsday prepping like your neighbor who’s been all-too-willingly eating up all the brainwashing material conspiracy theorists and conservative media warmongers have been shitting out since 1984. No. You, or a group of dedicated comrades, can take back the outside world and bring the future to them. Here’s my advice if you’re about to flee the city with your android partner, take it with a grain of salt.
First things first. You need to get out of the city, but it’s been some time since the repo men came calling and took the only thing that was even halfway reliable in your life, and the beater you’ve been driving since might not even make it through the suburbs (or Media Zombie Territory as I like to call it). You could maybe take a Greyhound, but Uber’s not an option in the sticks, and trust me, you’ll need a car. I shouldn’t have to say this, but don’t fuck with Tesla. You’ll just be adding to the world’s pollution problem, not taking away from it.
What you take doesn’t matter quite as much as whether or not you can get where you’re going, so look for cars that perform well in your climate region. Cars have been vital to rural life since the 1920s, and its denizens are well aware of this fact. After all, the relationships we have with the machines and tools in our lives is close, and only getting closer as we further interface with the Great Internet Overmind. Scarcity in smaller communities means that you’d fare better with something that is reliable over anything else, unless you’re mechanically gifted. If you pack light, desire better fuel mileage, have little regard for your well-being and/or are the Terminator, you could always go with the classic motorbike, but if you’re anywhere with extreme seasonal weather conditions you need to anticipate that and invest in something that will run when you need it to run.
Necessities aside, it’s your preference as to how connected you want your soon-to-be self-driving KITT knockoff nightmare machine to be to the internet of things. The bad news is if you’re driving any sort of car with a phone functionality built in, you’re on the grid, and it’s harder and harder nowadays to find a car without digital components. So, if your desire is to be able to go full analog at any point in time, you may have to get under the hood yourself, or otherwise see if that sketchy mechanic with a pile of old chassises at the edge of town knows his wiring.
From there it’s just a matter of how much effort and budget you’re willing to put into your vehicle’s customization. Tear out that default sound system and hook up a Bluetooth stereo with a touchscreen. Make sure you have enough USB ports to keep your devices humming–and if you don’t, cigarette lighter charge docks are so commonplace that you can probably find a bargain bin at your nearest pharmacy. Go ham and set up a vid calling screen that can connect to your phone. Turn your car into a mobile hotspot. Trim the interior with low neon lighting. Find any reason to line your interior with electrical cables and turn your vehicle into a mobile hacker’s den. Slap nerdy decals on that bitch, make it your personal collage canvas. Really, just do whatever makes you happy–the things you own don’t own you completely just yet, so if you want to drive anything from mopeds to luxury vehicles with autodriving features in the middle of the frozen Greenland tundra, that’s your business.
However, if you can’t afford any of that, or you just want to blend in as much as possible, at least get something with an aux port (or god forbid, a CD player) so you can blast Perturbator’s “There is No Love Highway” on those dark, uncertain night drives in the country. Maybe someday we’ll see solar roadway projects come to fruition, but until then you’ll have to contend with the solitude of a world that only exists in your high beams.
I have no advice on how to choose your living quarters because real estate is fucked no matter where you live. At least rent runs pretty cheap in the boonies, depending on how removed from society you are. However, once you find a location that suits your needs, be it a duplex, cabin, or farmhouse, you’ll want to make sure that you at the very least have a stable wi-fi connection. You may have to shell out for a decent router and modem, but you’ll be damned if you have to connect to the public network from your closest corporate-sponsored truck stop. That might be riskier than their burritos, which you’re pretty sure have been pulled out of deep freeze from the last millennium. Trust me, if you’re in flyover country, your access to fresh food is limited to your region’s non-corporatized farms, which are few and far between and cost far more than they should.
But more on that later. An issue in rural life right now is limited access to what is for many small businesses a necessity: web access. ISP monopolies have had a chokehold in states with large rural areas since broadband internet became viable. However, some municipalities have been pushing back against the oppression of constantly rising service rates and have opted instead to create community wifi networks that give all local residents internet access at a greatly reduced rate. If community activism is your thing, that might be something to bring up at your next town hall meeting.
It doesn’t start and end there, though. If you’re proficient in IT work, it may benefit you to operate as a freelance specialist. Your main clientele will likely be retirees, but there will be no shortage of work in places where computer illiteracy runs rampant. In a smaller, less densely populated region, you may find that your privacy will be invaded in ways that you don’t expect, disguised as country charm or some other myth of small town living, but keep in mind that when you’re online the same rules apply regardless of location. Keep your shit encrypted; use VPNs and anonymity browsers, secure your passwords, you know the drill. Not that you’re going to completely avoid the surveillance state and random Serbian hackers, that’s a bullet that can’t be dodged, but there’s never any reason to make yourself more vulnerable if you’re living 20km from the nearest sign of human life, particularly if you’re too broke to afford healthcare. Never leave your doors unlocked, be they physical or virtual, because small town cops are just like any other police force–not to be relied upon if the worst comes to pass.
If there’s anything that the past year has taught me, it’s that the internet has evolved beyond my previous notions of its status as an increasingly elaborate image- and text-based network and has started to virtually materialize in a manner that is becoming crucial to our communication with others. No matter how far from the city you go, as long as you have a connection you can bustle about in the crowded street markets of Etsy, the barcades of Twitch, and the strip clubs of Onlyfans. Sure, it’s not the same as mingling in person, but if this trend of widening economic disparity continues, you might just have to settle for the virtual world to satisfy some of the things you miss the most. Unless, of course, you’re like me and solely use media to pass the time, in which case you might only need your internet for porn, researching obscure microgenres, and downloading video games.
Either way, remaining plugged in isn’t as much a luxury as a necessity for many of us these days. In fact, it would be counterintuitive to try to take yourself off the grid–not only is it nearly impossible, but becoming a backwoods hillbilly with only a pile of busted computer monitors in your cellar for company isn’t exactly adaptive behavior. So, regardless of the fact that even if you live in a trailer park by the light of your screens, the fact that you have screens in the first place puts you on the map. This is just something you’ll have to get used to, unless everything really does turn to shit over the next few years.
The big draw of living in rural areas is often that one can live a lifestyle more independent from governments and corporations–this is, unfortunately, a myth. While admittedly it is less crowded, supermarkets, mass-produced consumer brands, and fast food chains have had their hooks in many rural towns in the US for years, decimating economies through the empty promises of cheaper goods. This leads to lower average income per household, higher crime rates, rural decay, etc.
So, needless to say, if you move into the country so you can eat a lot of peaches, don’t expect to find many entry-level opportunities. If you don’t have a career that can go wireless (and turn your living space into yet another place where you can be constantly put under the microscope by your employer) you might be better off trying your own thing. For instance, if you have experience in IT, you might find success in rural areas as a freelance specialist. Your main clientele may primarily consist of computer-illiterate retirees, but a paycheck is a paycheck.
However, if your goal is near-complete autonomy from our megacorporate overlords, here’s where things get tricky. As it may have become abundantly clear to you in the past year, our system of supplying local communities with non-local groceries is unsustainable as soon as the plague du jour hits–not to mention it’s killing the planet.
Fortunately, science is actually on the people’s side for once. Hydroponic (or vertical) gardening is a growing field of agriculture that uses compact, soil-light systems that can yield crops five times as quickly as traditional methods, is DIY as fuck, and may represent the future of local produce. Unfortunately, I’ve only just started researching the subject myself, so I don’t know the ins and outs of vertical farming at this point. However, the internet is not short on educational materials, the economic implications are staggering, and the results may look more like a solarpunk future and less than the Road Warrior-style wasteland we expect the countryside to become within the next 50 years.
The beauty of hydroponic gardening is that it can be done virtually anywhere. Got a yard? Close it off with a greenhouse, rig it with as many vertical gardening stands as possible, and you could yield a crop of organic, pesticide-free broccoli grown within city limits. With some clever engineering, an old barn, silo, or machine shed that isn’t seeing any use can be refashioned into compact growing areas. Hang an oxygen garden on your bedroom wall that isn’t plastered with crypto art or occupied by your rig. Or, if your thumb isn’t quite green enough yet, start off small and grow an herb garden in your loft’s kitchenette. Chances are if it’s edible, the local farmer’s markets won’t turn you away.
While hydroponic farming is still in its infancy, only offering simple produce items such as leafy greens as sustenance, there are kits that allow prospective farmers in any environment to experiment with different types of seedlings. And remember, once CRISPR starts being applied to crops, someday your dream of growing your own coffee or cocoa beans by the bushel north of the Arctic Circle might be possible.
So, let’s say you’ve successfully turned a one-acre plot of land with a cabin attached into a compact farm of towering green-covered walls and are able to sustain your local economy with cheap, fresh produce, but you want to do more to shake off the chains of capitalism. Well, it’s not cheap, but if you’re tired of paying a power bill to a company belching toxic fumes into our thinning atmosphere, you could attach solar panels to your roof (if living in a sunny region; otherwise I recommend wind or hydroelectric), wire your electrical system to a bank of long-lasting car batteries, and you’ll be set to go until someone burns the sky.
Here’s the tricky part. None of us can be certain what exactly the future holds, but current research is telling us that the global climate will get worse before it gets better. This means we’ll likely be seeing more droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires, and freak snowstorms with increasing frequency over the next century or so. How this will change life in the country is yet to be seen, but don’t expect any sort of government aid to your communities.
There’s also a reason why I don’t suggest you begin farming livestock–first of all, it’s really overrated, but more importantly, it’s almost as if Earth wasn’t designed to sustain seven and a half billion apex predators. The meat industry, along with just about any other Western enterprise, is helping destroy our ecosystem and will more than likely end with the extinction of the animals we so very much love to eat. So, whether you like it or not, our future will likely require us to find other sources of protein that aren’t as resource-consuming as the average beef cow. Fortunately, if you are like me and were raised on artificial flavorings and corn syrup, you might be able to find suitable simulacra without looking too far these days. For instance, extra firm tofu has a similar texture to chicken, and if fried with a little bit of garlic salt, onion powder, and corn starch, can upgrade any ramen meal. Likewise, Impossible Meats and other products like seitan provide meat alternatives that are nearly indistinguishable from the “real thing”. Even if you are restricted to making yourself black bean burgers on a regular basis, just remember this rule of thumb: liquid smoke is your friend.
While the future might end up looking less like the Cursed Earth and more like the equally bleak, decaying society in Jackrabbit, one thing post-apocalyptic fiction gets right is this: water will become an increasingly scarce commodity over the next few decades, especially if corporations continue to lay claim to communities’ water rights. Whatever method of survival you choose in the great outdoors, access to a steady supply of clean water is going to be vital to any kind of lifestyle that could remotely qualify as stable. After all, hard water in rural areas isn’t always safe to drink as it is, so it might behoove you to invest in a water distiller before you start growing a third arm.
I’m not saying you should hoard water. Just, stay hydrated is all.
As much as I hate to admit it, burning down oppressive institutions isn’t the most constructive path forward in this thoroughly alienating world we’ve built. And while the tech bros in their silicon towers spend all their efforts on creating a robot they can fuck, we don’t have to live in their world. I don’t claim to be an expert on the economy or the environment, but I do know that our current method of wasteful consumerism will eventually run our children’s society into the ground–perhaps sooner, if Americans, Brits, and citizens other nations who ducked out of the Paris Agreement don’t begin adopting greener technology and production methods on a consumer level.
But it doesn’t have to be this way, folks. We have methods available to us to, at the very least, wrest some economic control back from Monsanto, Tyson, and other processed food giants. It may be hard to believe, but if enough of us who have been displaced by the pandemic band together and create fortified communities in rural regions, we might just be able to get to the next screen.
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